Darden CEO: Virtual Brands a ‘Distraction’

This article was written by Danny Klein with FSR Magazine

Over the summer, Brinker International, Bloomin’ Brands, and Dine Brands dipped into virtual waters. The Chili’s and Maggiano’s parent introduced “It’s Just Wings” to 1,000-plus kitchens via DoorDash in June—a launch that’s producing revenue at a $150-million-per-year pace, the company said, with a potential crop of other brands to follow.

Bloomin’, owner of Outback, Carrabba’s, Bonefish Grill, and Fleming’s, started testing “Tender Shack,” also with DoorDash, in September throughout the Tampa Bay, Florida, market. Dine Brands touts “Neighborhood Wings by Applebee’s.” All exist only on third-party platforms, and are served out of established kitchens. Tender Shack, for example, was activated out of a Carrabba’s.

But don’t expect Darden to join one of COVID-19’s most buzzed-about movements.

CEO Gene Lee, speaking to investors Thursday during the company’s Q1 review, said creating a so-called ghost concept “is not the right approach” for Darden. “We want to focus on brands that we’ve got 20-plus years and hundreds of millions of dollars invested in trying to build, and we want to make sure that they’re executing at a high level,” Lee said.

He’d rather put stock in equity and consumer trust. “I think you have a functional need and an emotional need,” Lee said. “And I think that’s what our brand builders have done for decades. And to get on a digital platform and try to do that, I think people are going to try to what they want to do. I’m not saying it’s a good idea or bad idea—it’s not for us.

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